Thursday, 31 October 2013

Did I Spot a Tiger? (Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve)

Long Blog Alert!

It has been an ambition of Mr Jules and I - during our stay in India - to see at least one Bengal Tiger. No mean feat when there are less than 1,500 of this endangered species remaining in the whole of India.  When we went to Kaziranga in Assam earlier this year, we were barely successful.  Despite seeing a plethora of birds and mammals, we only saw one tiger through the powerful binoculars of a stranger, thousands of metres away - just a sketchy outline that we later deemed unworthy of a 'proper' sighting.

Since that time, I have upgraded my main camera from a small mirrorless Sony Nex-5 to a Nikon D7000 and I have been on a weekend course to learn the basics of photography.  This is not really enough time to learn even a small percentage of photography technique, but it was here that my interest in wildlife photography was ignited. By our tutor - Jayanth Sharma of Toehold, himself an awesome and internationally recognised wildlife photographer.

A couple of months after attending this course, Mr Jules and I decided that it was time to go on safari again. But at the same time as enjoying wildlife itself, I also wanted to photograph it and learn some technique. What better way to do this than attend one of Toehold's wildlife photography safaris!  There are quite a few listed on their website but we wanted to try out one of the lesser known locations where there would still be a high chance of a tiger sighting.  We applied for the 'Feline Fortune Tadoba Photography Tour'. Mr Jules, not being a photographer himself would still be welcomed on the safari as a wildlife enthusiast who could sit back and enjoy the view through a set of binoculars.

On the lead up to the tour, everything was meticulously organised by the staff at Toehold.  We were communicated with on a regular basis about park fees, insurance, airport transfers, accommodation, lens hire etc. Tadoba, not being an overtly touristic location lacks a good choice of hotels.  But we would be staying at a clean and comfortable resort right near the gates, meaning that we could have an extra 15 minutes in bed in the morning (this counts for a lot when you have to get to the park gates by 5.30 am!).

We arrived at Nagpur airport early last Wednesday morning and met up with the rest of the group who had flown in from all over India. There were about 14 of us plus the two 'skippers' from Toehold - Sachin Rai and Santosh Saligram.  We bundled into four taxis with all of our luggage and extensive photographic gear and accelerated off for for the three hour journey to Tadoba.  I have to say - the road between Nagpur and Tadoba was incredible - beautifully tarmacked with none of the crazy traffic you see in Mumbai or on Rajasthani roads.

Once we had arrived at the hotel and been quickly ensconced in our room - it was nearly time for lunch and a briefing by the skippers. Then within a couple of hours we were allocated a jeep and we were already on our way to the first safari.  The atmosphere was thick with apprehension and excitement - would we see a tiger so early on? Who would be the first to spot something?  Personally, I would be happy to see anything, so long as I could train my new camera on it and take a picture in focus!

There were only four persons to a jeep, giving us all plenty of space to manoeuvre.  Which was just as well when I saw what some of the other guys were carrying gear-wise.  Most people had at least 400mm lenses - some had 500mm and the majority were using full-frame cameras.  I almost felt inadequate with my hired 70-300mm lens!  But I had to remind myself that this was my first outing and I had to start out with the 'basics'.

Camera/lens envy soon set in!
That first afternoon, we returned with some photos of deer, black faced langurs and birds - no tiger sighting as yet but as expected.  Although some people had spotted a leopard. A nice cup of steaming chai awaited us every afternoon when we came back, giving us a chance to talk about what we had seen and wind down.  On each day there were also two tutorials/question-answer sessions with Sachin and Santosh - one after lunch and one before dinner.  At the beginning of the week, most of these were taken up with explanations about Exposure, Aperture and ISO - which seemed to confuse most of us, even those with the biggest lenses! One night, one of the participants gave us a fascinating talk on his other passion - astrophotography where he showed us his incredible pictures of nebulas, galaxies and meteors. (You need a lot of equipment and patience for that particular hobby by the way!).

Black faced langur
The next morning we were up at 5am in order to be ready for 5.30am.  Bearing in mind I had only arrived back in India from four weeks in Europe just 48 hours before, this was quite an effort. My body clock was all over the place - it was 12.30am UK time! However, I managed to scrape myself off the bed, down a cup of chai and be ready in the jeep on schedule.  Toehold had already done a marvellous job with all the paperwork - so the bureaucracy before entering the park was minimal - we just had to confirm our ID at the office and pay over 500 Rs for all lenses over 300mm (each safari = 4,000 Rs for the whole week! - but so long as the money goes towards maintaining the park and the local economy we didn't mind).

The gates open at 6am and then close at 11am - so you have five hours to make the most of it (the afternoon safari is 2.30pm to 6pm).  By 9.30 we had seen all sorts - chittal, sambar deer and nilgai antelope, mongoose, changeable hawk eagles, babblers, orioles etc. But then a rumour crossed the winds that a tiger was sleeping in forest. Woohooo!!!!  We sped along to the spot where there were a couple of other jeeps already parked.  As we jostled and pointed and whispered 'where? where? where?', I eventually caught sight of some distinctly orange fur through the undergrowth. Indeed there she was!  A beautiful young female tiger, happily snoozing about 20 metres across from us.  At that time, we couldn't see her in detail - certainly not her face. But I could glimpse the pads of her (absolutely enormous!) paws as she occasionally rolled over. After waiting 30 minutes to see if she would get up and move, it was time to get back to the gate (or receive a hefty fine) - so we left her there sleeping.

My first tiger sighting!
When we got back to the hotel, the chatter and the smiles had increased three-fold over breakfast and chai. Who had seen the tigress? Everyone? Or just a lucky few?  Would we see her again?  More importantly, had anyone got a decent capture? Seems like most people had not been able to get a good enough view, like me. By the time the afternoon safari arrived, excitement had peaked with the desire to get back to the same spot and see if she was still there.  At 2.30pm we all sped off through the park gates and when we arrived back at the site, she was still there, sleeping soundly like a cat on Valium. 

We hung around for a while - with a pretty poor view through the foliage.  When it was evident that she was not going to move, most of us made the decision to move off.  There were a couple of die-hard photographers that remained.  We did a couple of circuits around the forest - stopping now and again to take photos of birds, spiders and Gaur - huge bovines (the largest bovine species in fact).  All the while, trying to perfect Exposure and Focus.

Enormous Gaur. 
Then we came back to the same spot where the cat was still sleeping (I'm definitely coming back as a cat in my next life!)  Our driver managed to pull up where there was a half decent gap in the undergrowth. Desperate to get some sort of decent shot, I hung low out of the side of the jeep and trained my lens on the cat's body.  I still could not see her head but snapped away anyway.  But then there was some movement.  She raised her head a bit and I glimpsed her exciting!  Then she raised her head a bit more and I could see her entire and oh-so beautiful face.  I continued to snap away - trying to perfect my settings all the time.  For the next 20 minutes or so, there was quite a lot of activity as she licked and cleaned herself, glanced around at her onlookers (even looking right into my lens, I'm sure!) and occasionally rolling over to reveal a bright white, stripy belly.  Amazing!  Of course it was Mr Jules who got the best view - as he calmly surveyed the big cat with his powerful binoculars.  That is the thing about photography - you can miss out on an awful lot by obsessively trying to get that 'dream capture'.

Still sleeping when we arrive back - but on her other side
She looks up - my favourite shot as her eyes look so beautiful (even if earless!)
Starts cleaning herself - like any domestic cat.  See those fantastic markings on her forehead
Having a good lick
Tongue right out!
She is looking right at me....but not at all menacing
Rolling over to reveal a beautiful black and white striped belly.
After the tigress decided to go back to sleep, we drove off again, circled the park, trying not to think about whether she had moved, giving her remaining audience some superb photographic opportunities.  I think our driver had some sort of sixth sense - because when we came back to the same spot at around 5.15 (45 minutes before gates closing) - she was still there ...but ready to move.  As she unfurled herself and started to stand up - the atmosphere was palpable.  I had to admit, my heart was beating pretty fast too!  She began to drift off to the left and we all followed - it looked like she was going to come through a thin stretch of wood and on to the road!  And she did!  She crossed the road almost in front of us and into the woods on the left. We couldn't quite see what her next move was going to be but we were in for such a treat - as she decided to saunter back on to the road and walk all the way up it, cool as a cucumber!!

This was one Marilyn Monroe of a cat.  She walked as slowly as you like, swinging her hips and her tail - wooing us with her behind.  Not faltering and not looking back once and totally ignoring what was going on around her.  She really didn't care! Of course there were quite a lot of us trying to take photos and the view got a bit obscured. But then our jeep somehow managed to get up right ahead and before I knew it we were right along side her!  As she continued her saunter up the road and turned left onto the tarmac, I was snapping nonchalantly away, not checking my settings but thinking how brilliant I was for the photographs I would produce from my first ever tiger sighting!

But alas, it was only she sprayed on a bush and then disappeared into the woods that I checked the fruits of my labour.  Oh CRAP!  I had forgotten to change my exposure compensation settings and ISO and had totally screwed up my photos....they were all blurred - even the close-ups along side her.  I was GUTTED!!!! I'd thrown away the best opportunity I would ever get to snap my poster shot.

When I got back to the hotel - I went to my room and cried.  I felt so angry at myself (later conversations with the rest of the group said I'd made a very common error - not to re-adjust my settings. Keep trying).  I certainly did not want to show anyone my photos - especially when they knew I'd got so close up.  Too embarrassing.

The two shots above are the best that I could salvage from my hundreds of close up shots.
What a dreadful waste of an opportunity!
Anyhow, the next day was another day and a chance for more photographic mistakes opportunities.  A couple of people in the group saw a tiger cub by the side of the road (aaaaw cute) and we got close up to a group of asiatic wild dogs called Dhole. These dogs - which actually look more like large foxes with their ruddy fur and big ears - are very rare. So we were pleased to see them.  (Interesting fact: these dogs are the only hunters to disembowel and eat their prey without killing them first...gross or what!)

Dhole (Asiatic wild dog) with foxy colouring and ears
Shot taken at about 7am on a very high ISO - hence the graininess of the pic.  Still pleased that he turned to pose here.

Day three was also a great day.  On our early morning safari - at about 7.10am, we were riding along in the jeep, chatting away and not really concentrating when Mr Jules spotted something orange out of the corner of his eye.  'Stop, stop, tiger, tiger!!'.  We reversed back quickly - and there right in front of us - about 30 metres away this time - was a great big boy tiger snoozing away on a muddy outcrop. And the six of us in the vehicle (including the driver and guide) were the only people there so had plenty of space to get the best view. Unfortunately, the tiger was situated below our level with some tall grasses in front so although we could see the whole animal, its face was still obscured by leaves.   We spent 10 minutes clicking away before it woke up, yawned and walked off - regarding us with utter disdain.

After clicking away for a few minutes, he wakes up and looks over to us.
The beginnings of a yawn....
...and a bit more...
...going all the way....
...this could be a ferocious growl!  Check out those teeth!
Regarding us some more....
Having a scratch
And another yawn
Gets bored and wanders off.
Considerably bigger than the girl we saw before...
Showing us his manly 'goods' and a giant paw
Bye bye handsome boy!

I love cats!  It doesn't matter what species or what size a cat is, they all act in exactly the same manner!

The remaining safaris brought us plenty of sightings but not of tigers. But Mr and Jules and I were over the moon.  We had seen two tigers and really seen them close up...such a complete privilege. Not only that, but with a skipper in the jeep on 40% of the outings, I received enough tuition to improve my wildlife photography skills.  We also made new friends on this trip - all of whom had been very kind and welcoming towards us 'foreigners'.  Every breakfast, lunch and dinner enabled us to move around the group and meet new people and we were in the jeep with different participants on every safari.

I never knew that I would enjoy wildlife so much (it was always Mr Jules's domain) - or even photography.  I have a really long way to go - most of these pictures are still holiday snap quality and I have definitely taken better photographs in the past.  Wildlife photography is so different to snapping away on the street - with fast moving animals and birds, you barely have time to get your settings right, you have be very 'quick on the draw' and you have to know your subject.  Watch this space!

Some more pics from the thousand I took:

Above and below - Giant Wood Spiders.  These spiders amazed me with the size of their webs - which would reach from the branch of a tree down to the ground or from tree to tree.  Some times the rear bar of the jeep would catch on them as you drove through the forest and they would end up clinging to the vehicle...SCARY!

Family day out

Shikra (or Shakira as I called them!)

Changeable Hawk Eagle (and just out of sight - its dinner)
Perhaps I should stick to photographing people....
Two dhole playing

Spotted Stag taking a leap

Rural scene as villagers traverse the park with bulls and carts

Found the tree more interesting than the bird (Changeable Hawk Eagle)


Sambar deer crossing the road

Out of focus but I love this crow trying to sneak up the branch to this Black Shouldered Kite!

I went into the village nearby - everything was so colourful by contrast to the jungle. 

After taking this photo, the whole of the village came out with their babies, wanting photos to be taken!

Quite proud of this one considering my 300mm lens - a beautiful bee-eater

Dhole again in an Abba pose

Light too poor and my settings too off to get a crisp shot

A mongoose! Weird looking creature.

Too true!

Tadoba'a forests are very pretty - and you never know what is lurking in the bushes!
The lake is also beautiful.

Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is the oldest National Park in the state of Maharashtra - it is also designated as one of India's 41 'Project Tiger' Tiger reserves.  Read more about it here. Nearest airport is Nagpur.

Toehold is a combined travel and photography company offering photography classes in several locations in India as well as photography tours all over India and abroad.  It is run by professionals who are acclaimed photographers in their own right.  At least 60% of the participants on our tour had previously been on Toehold tours or classes - proving the strength of their organisation and the quality of the photography tuition.  Being foreigners, we were treated no differently (we detest that!) by either the staff or the other tour members - although on some of the tours you may well have to pay 'foreign national' park fees.  We did not at Tadoba.

As for the skippers/tutors:

You can find Sachin Rai's photography site here
You can find Jayanth Sharma's gallery here 
You can find Santosh Saligram's photos here